On Anthropomorphism

When you see something blue, do you see the same colour I see?

We cannot tell: perhaps what I see as blue, you see as red. We’d still both call it blue, because that’s what we’ve learnt it’s called, however we see it.

We cannot tell, but we can make a reasonable guess that in fact we see the same colour. Ignoring people with abnormal colour vision for the moment, we can certainly distinguish more or less the same range of colours. By outward appearance, we are very similar creatures; we are also similar to others whose cadavers have been dissected and proved to be internally similar too. So we can fairly assume that we are so similar that the sensation we both describe as “seeing something blue” is in fact the very same sensation.

In similar fashion, we know what “happy”, “confused”, “excited”, “in pain” or “friendly” mean. We know what these things feel like internally, and can make a reasonable assumption that they feel the same to other people. We don’t know, because we’ve never been anyone else; but we can generalize from the one case we know well to everyone else. It may not be true, but there’s no way of telling, even in principle. There’s a more or less consistent relationship between the external appearance of happiness, confusion, excitement or friendliness and people’s use of the corresponding words – just as with colours, and for the same reason: we’ve all learnt those correspondences.

However, we don’t need to rely on people’s self-description to know whether they’re happy, confused, excited, in pain or friendly. We can tell from their facial expressions and behaviour. These clues aren’t 100% reliable, of course – but then neither are the self-descriptions! Both are consistent enough for us to have been able to develop the language and use it. It’s still only an unprovable assumption that the internal feelings are actually the same.

Or is it? What does it mean to say that?

If a tree falls in the forest where no-one can hear it, does it make a sound? Is that a real question, or just a play on words?

There is absolutely no way, even in principle, to distinguish experimentally between the two hypotheses “when we are both happy, we feel the same inside” and “when we are both happy, our internal feelings are actually quite different”. If two hypotheses are indistinguishable in their implications, even in principle, are they really different hypotheses, or is the difference purely semantic?

What I’m working round to is this: is it anthropomorphism to think that when a goat or chicken seems to be happy, confused, excited, in pain or friendly it is actually so? And even if you want to use the term anthropomorphism, is there anything wrong with it?

Okay, I can’t even tell you actually feel happy, confused, excited, in pain or friendly in the same way that I feel those things, but no-one uses any pejorative term to describe my assumption that you do. It may be somewhat harder to identify such feelings in other creatures, but it’s only a matter of degree: if you’re familiar with goats, you know when they’re feeling such things almost as well as you know when your children are.

How well you can tell such things varies between species. It’s not an on-off thing; it’s a continuous spectrum. I haven’t the faintest idea how an ant or a woodlouse is feeling, or even whether it has feelings at all; I know goats and chickens well, and you may know dogs. Fish, snakes, crocodiles, mice and monkeys fall in different (ill-defined and subjective) places along the spectrum.

Berate me for anthropomorphism? If you like, but my position is no less rational than yours.